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When to give 80% of your best effort


Henry Mintzberg, one of the greatest of management writers, told me he re-wrote every sentence of his book Managing 5 to 10 times. Another bestselling author admitted to re-writing his conclusion almost 50 times. People who produce the best content may not be the most talented writers, just the ones willing to put in far more effort than others would. To say someone like Mintzberg gives “110%” grossly underestimates his efforts compared to the average author.

If writing a book seems far removed from your life, think of the business development representative who told me she’d just spent 30 minutes on a one-paragraph email. Why? Because she felt she only had one shot at the sale. She simply wasn’t worried about the time it took, she did whatever it took to get it right.

We might reach the conclusion that it is worthwhile to put in far more effort than the average mortal; to always give 110%. Yet, consider the CHRO who explained that the best advice he got early in his career was to stop aiming to do things perfectly. He was told that 80% was good enough; otherwise he’d never get all the work done. This advice is reminiscent of marketing guru Seth Godin who is continually urging people to “ship the product” rather than fuss over getting it perfect. Finally, there’s the seasoned leader who told me how happy he was to get the organization doing things that were “directionally correct”, even if not precisely on course, because it’s so hard to get the organization moving at all that something roughly in the right direction was a great achievement. This leader was delighted if it was 80% right.

Confronting the contradictory evidence

These two sets of stories give us competing evidence. One leads us to believe that giving 110% is the right approach, the other leads us to think giving 80% is the wise option. How do we reconcile the two ideas? Clearly the solution is not the happy medium of giving 95%; no one seems to think that’s the best tactic.

The cases where it made sense to aim towards perfection—even when it turns out that’s far more effort than you might imagine—were situations where you’ve just got one shot and where the difference between good and excellent matters a lot. There are tens of thousands of good books, so only the excellent ones get noticed. It’s dreadfully difficult to secure a sale, so a “good” email may be a waste of time, only a perfect one will give you a shot at closing the deal.

The other stories suggest that most of the time we would do well to put perfection aside; it’s usually better to get something done reasonably well and move forward than it is to spend two or three or five times as long to make it perfect.

Distinguishing between situations that call for excellence versus situations that call for “just getting it done” is an important skill for all employees from the top to the bottom of the organization. The 80% tactic can be hard for young professionals to learn; especially those who were A students and are emotionally committed to producing A quality work, even when the situation calls for a B. Managers will have to patiently coach employees on making the right choice on effort since there isn’t a simple tactic that’s right in all situations.

People prefer cut and dried rules such as “Honesty is always the best policy” rather than vaguer advice such as “Honesty is more or less the right thing to do more often than not”. The easy thing for us is to give employees a simple rule that they’ll like and will be easy to teach. You’ll have to decide when it’s best just to give them the simple rule because it’s good enough and when to take the much longer time to teach them a more nuanced understanding of a range of options. In other words, you too need to master the tension of knowing when to give 80%.


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